I have reached the stage in my Christian journey that once was unimaginable: Ash Wednesday has become part of my routine.
I clearly remember the days when attending Ash Wednesday worship felt like entering a foreign land. But this year, it is simply part of normal life. At least, it’s as normal as possible. How normal is it to place yourself deliberately in a situation where you are told that you will die?
It’s not normal. And that’s what I love about Ash Wednesday. “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” is a wake-up call that never gets old. I know it’s true, but I go about my life as if I’ll be alive forever. I go about my life as if everyone I love best will be alive forever too.
I know better. In my college years, my family died like death was going out of style. My father died; my uncle died; my grandfather died; my step-grandfather died. In four years, I lost four of the closest members of my family.
This is also when I discovered religion, which is no coincidence. Being repeatedly slapped in the face by death made me wake up to the importance of a life that matters. But it took almost another twenty years for me to join the Episcopal Church, and for Ash Wednesday to become part of my normal routine.
Now that I am a parent, I go to Ash Wednesday differently. I take my children, as I have for years. It is one thing to accept that I am mortal; it is entirely different to accept that my children are mortal too. In all honesty, I can’t wrap my mind around that reality. But this is why I keep going back. Ash Wednesday still has lessons to teach me.
And that’s why we keep Ash Wednesday, and the whole church year: there is wisdom here that cannot be gained any other way. There is no secular equivalent to having ashes placed on your head and being reminded of your mortality. There is no secular equivalent to watching that happen for your children too. Only the church does this. We can tell the hard truth of death because we also tell the hard truth of resurrection.
These truths endure, generation after generation. That’s why I make my tween and teen go to Ash Wednesday worship. I let them skip youth group; I don’t make them go to church camp. But they are required to attend Ash Wednesday, Holy Week liturgies, and worship on (almost every) Sunday. They won’t live with me for long; I only have so much time to expose them to the wisdom passed down through the generations. And they need the church’s teaching just as much as I do.
The day will come when death slaps my kids in the face. One day, they will even be mourning me.
When that day comes, I want them to remember all our Ash Wednesdays. I want them already to know that Mom is mortal, but God is eternal.
I want them to remember that every week their parents brought them to a place where they said “Christ has died; Christ has risen; Christ will come again.” I want them to remember that the love of God endures. And I want them to put God first in their lives, as their best hope to live a life that matters.
I cannot control whether Ash Wednesday is part of my children’s routine once they are away from home. But I can be sure that while they are with me, they hear about the mercy of God. They hear about penitence and forgiveness. They hear about eternal life.
In the end, neither my children nor I will endure. Hard as it is to accept, every soul with whom I observe Ash Wednesday will go down to the dust.
But the last word on Ash Wednesday is not the death of sinners; it is the proclamation of forgiveness. It is the prayer that we might enter into the eternal joy of our Lord.
That forgiveness and that hope endures, across every generation. Thanks be to God.
[Image credit: Public Domain via Pixabay.]
Do you take your children to Ash Wednesday worship? Why or why not?